7 Facts to Know About Fantastic Negrito Before He Blows Up
Xavier Dphrepaulezz never intended to rise from the ashes, but most phoenixes don’t.
A major-label R&B musician in the 1990s who worked for nearly 17 years across a myriad of genres in Los Angeles, he left music, seemingly for good, in 2007. But last year, he re-emerged as Fantastic Negrito, playing “black roots music for everyone,” and his new foray into the indie world has granted Dphrepaulezz a meteoric rise to prominence. In February, his one-take performance in a freight elevator in Oakland won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, beating out nearly 7,000 entries. In March, performances at South By Southwest in Austin stirred up even more buzz. Then in August, when his set at San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival was cancelled, the controversy further raised his profile. And the theme song to Ron Perlman’s new Amazon show Hand of God? That’s him too.
Fantastic Negrito has been simmering in Oakland for a couple of years, poised to break out. And with a wealth of experiences in and out of the business, he’s got more stories to tell than most other “new” artists–—a modern twist on the blues tradition of apocryphal origins. Robert Johnson had the crossroads, Lead Belly had John Lomax and the Louisiana State Prison, and Dphrepaulezz’s road has enough twists to rival them both. Here are the key things you need to know from the Fantastic Negrito mythos.
He Left Home at Age 12
Dphrepaulezz was born in western Massachusetts, the eighth of 14 kids in a strict religious family, where his Oxford-educated Somalian father ran a restaurant that catered mostly to vacationers. But when the family moved to Oakland at the start of the 1980s, Dphrepaulezz left home for good, never seeing his father again before he passed away two years later. He went into foster care, and spent most of his adolescence among street kids. “I was a kid coming out of that really closed-minded area coming into this hotbed of activity,” he says. “The beginning of hip-hop and punk was meeting out there; I felt something in the streets, and I had to live it.”
He Learned Piano by Sneaking Into UC Berkeley Practice Rooms
Though he soaked up culture from his Oakland surroundings, Dphrepaulezz didn’t pursue playing instruments until after he was 18, when he began dressing nicely and posing as a student at UC Berkeley in order to gain access to practice rooms with pianos. “I really loved the hardcore alternative vibe Prince had on Dirty Mind,” he says, “so I thought, ‘How did Prince learn?’ Well, he taught himself, so I just listened to kids practicing scales, and that was how I learned to play.” Shortly thereafter, instead of covering songs he heard on the radio, Dphrepaulezz threw himself headfirst into writing as much music as possible: “I think that was always my strength. I was never a great player, but I could write.”
He Moved to Los Angeles After Being Robbed at Gunpoint
By the early ’90s, Dphrepaulezz could play instruments and write songs, but he was still in what he calls “the hustling life” in Oakland. “We’d bought some guns and we thought we were hard,” he says, but some “dangerous” people he had crossed came back and robbed him: “I got held down with a 9mm on my head.” He hitchhiked to Los Angeles the next day; once there, he knocked on studio doors until somebody would listen. He says the first people who let him in weren’t so different from what he left behind in Oakland: “I could tell they were hustlers, they were living the life, and I was familiar with that, so I slept on the floor and just learned how to do it, I furthered my craft.”
Jimmy Iovine Signed Him Personally
Working as an independent songwriter, Dphrepaulezz crossed paths with a 14-year-old Robin Thicke, will.i.am, and Jamie Foxx, all while demoing his own work. Then one day, a friend “stole a tape” and took it to his job as a caddie at Bel-Air Country Club. “He gave it to Prince’s manager [Joe Ruffalo],” Dphrepaulezz says, “and they immediately took me off the streets and put me in an apartment and gave me a stipend.” He then auditioned for labels, playing three songs on a piano before receiving offers. He ended up at Interscope, after Jimmy Iovine personally outbid everyone else.
But despite the affirmation of his talents a major-label contract would suggest, Dphrepaulezz felt stifled by the process. “It just confused the shit out of me,” he says. “It’s a business, and I didn’t understand it. The one thing I had pure in my life was creativity.” Once money came into it and turned his creative output into a commodity, “it was over instantly.” His only release for Interscope under his own name, 1996’s The X Factor, is a patchwork of neo-soul, singer-songwriter material, and Prince homages, alternately too indebted to classics and too similar to then-contemporary R&B to find its own place. Despite touring stints with The Fugees, Arrested Development, De La Soul, and Blackstreet, the album gained no traction, and left him stranded on a major label that didn’t know what to do with his music.
A Debilitating Car Crash Saved Him From Major Label Purgatory—And Himself
In 1999, Dphrepaulezz was in a near-fatal car accident that left him in a coma for three weeks, and nearly robbed him of movement in his hands. After intense physical therapy, he’s regained movement, but has never been the same. Part of that was a blessing though; Interscope dropped him soon after he awoke in a hospital, relieving the pressure that had frustrated his creativity. Dphrepaulezz refers to himself as “a reformed narcissist,” and also credits needing people to feed him and “wipe my ass” in the aftermath of the accident with helping curb his youthful arrogance. Ultimately, that experience led to the founding of artist collective Blackball Universe.
His Final LA Years Consisted of Film Licensing and Illegal Nightclubs
One of Dphrepaulezz’s songs from The X Factor ended up on the Interscope-produced soundtrack for the infamous Showgirls—presumably when the Prince songs that appeared in the film couldn’t be secured for the album. After Interscope dropped him, Dphrepaulezz remained in Los Angeles, genre-hopping through ideas as they came to him. “I was as crazy as the record company said I was,” he says. He played in groups called Chocolate Butterfly, Blood Sugar X, and Me and This Japanese Guy. With those various bands, he licensed songs to films and television shows, including The Surreal Life, Las Vegas, Burn Notice, Blue Mountain State, Madea Goes To Jail, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and Leprechaun: Back 2 The Hood.
He also got into nightclub promotion, using his 3,000-square foot loft to host illegal shows, and managed to only get arrested once. “I put a hot tub on the roof, had nude dancers, punk music with blues, badass New Orleans jazz, everything I imagined,” he says. “I made a living off that shit, I only had it once a month, and then I’d fly off to Europe to do shows.”
He Got Through the Lean Years Growing Weed
After quitting music, selling most of his equipment, and moving back to Oakland to start a family, he remained part of Blackball Universe. But in lieu of creating new music to earn licensing fees, he stayed afloat with a quarter-acre farm that grew “chickens, vegetables, and … a lot of weed.” He says it was “basically the hustling life, but safer. That’s all I knew; I know music and I know hustling.”
He Started Playing Music Again to Entertain His Son
One day a few years after returning to Oakland, Dphrepaulezz was alone when his infant son got upset. Dphrepaulezz turned to a guitar stashed under a couch—the only piece of equipment he didn’t get rid of—and played a chord. The child was immediately enthralled, so Dphrepaulezz kept learning new things, starting with “Across the Universe” by The Beatles. “Growing up in the neighborhoods I did in Oakland,” he says, “you don’t know the Beatles, but I started learning their songs. I thought they were really good for kids.” Despite being terrified of dipping his toes back into music, Dphrepaulezz continued, if only indirectly at first. He opened an art gallery that had “nude bartenders or 80-year-old French women talking about the Nazi occupation,” he says. But he’d be in the background, playing piano, hiding behind the gallery as an excuse to test out new music.
It took Blackball Universe co-owner and current Empire writer/co-producer Malcolm Spellman to encourage another serious foray into music. This time, Dphrepaulezz went back to the music he’d heard all his life, dating back to visiting his extended family in southern Virginia, but had initially dismissed: the blues. Specifically, Lead Belly, Skip James, and Muddy Waters. “I’d grown up around all kinds of music, but I didn’t get it,” he says. “It didn’t have drums. They sounded sad. They sounded old.” But after a few decades of hardship and perseverance, the music that lies at the foundation of so many American genres finally made sense to him: “I had lived. I had failed. I lost my hand. I buried my brother. I got it; the connection finally happened.”
Writing “Night Has Turned to Day,” a song which appears on Fantastic Negrito’s first EP, cemented the new, unfamiliar direction. Dphrepaulezz began busking around Oakland at restaurants and transit stations, before taking his music to San Francisco, where he considers pedestrian audiences tougher to win over. Within months he was playing local shows with a band, and before long the Tiny Desk Concert Contest, SXSW, and Outside Lands raised his profile to the point where his music hit No. 1 on the iTunes Blues chart.
Twenty years ago, within the major label machine, someone with interests as eclectic as Dphrepaulezz’s couldn’t sustain a career. But with the industry fractured, and online fan interest buoying musicians who cultivate a passionate following, Fantastic Negrito is a project perfectly suited to the fervent niche audience that discovered his music. Twitter even got him the Hand of God gig; it took a social media push for his 2015 single “An Honest Man” to get the attention of Marc Forster and Ron Perlman.
Dphrepaulezz says that “major labels have come back already, big ones.” And he’s fielded offers to tour—but for now he’s turning it all down in favor of recording a full album of material that’s already written. After decades striving for a musical identity built on solid ground, trying on different masks at every creative whim, Fantastic Negrito is Xavier Dphrepaulezz’s truest expression of his interests and abilities–and he’s not letting go of that bedrock anytime soon.
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